DATE November 27, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Peter Gleick, president of The Pacific Institute and
expert on sustainable water use, on water usage in the US today
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
You might want to put aside your bottled water as you listen to this next
interview. It's all about water, including why bottled water is not
environmentally correct. My guest is Peter Gleick. He's an expert on
sustainable water use, the impact of climate change on water and conflicts
over water resources. He edits the biennial report "The World's Water," is a
former MacArthur fellow and is the founder and president of the think tank The
Pacific Institute, which is based in Oakland.
He says it's time to re-think how we use and conserve water. I asked Gleick
about the areas with the worst water shortages now in the US.
Mr. PETER GLEICK: Well, we've traditionally thought that the Western United
States is the place where our water shortages are the worst. After you get
west of the Mississippi River, the US starts to dry out. And we really see,
and have seen for a century, scarcity of water conflict over limited water
resources. I mean, the entire Southwest, for example, is pretty much
dependant on one big river, that's the Colorado River, and it's not all that
big. And so there's been conflict over water availability and water scarcity
in the West for many, many years. We have a long history of it here.
But increasingly, we're finding that we have water problems elsewhere. The
entire Southeast right now is in a very, very severe drought. Atlanta is
water short. There's a fight between Georgia and Alabama and Florida over
water. We see contamination problems throughout the Northeast. I think water
is just--it's a resource that we can no longer take for granted anywhere. And
I think that's going to be one of the new challenges in the coming decades.
GROSS: Do you think global warming is affecting water supply?
Mr. GLEICK: Oh, yes, absolutely. The evidence, first of all that climate
change is a real problem, and second of all that it's a real problem because
of things that humans are doing, and third of all that it's already happening,
is increasingly compelling. We just see more and more evidence that climate
change is a real problem and that it's going to get much, much worse. And we
see a lot of evidence that, in fact, one of the worst impacts of climate
change will be impacts on our water supply, water availability, water quality,
water temperature, water timing and distribution, the frequency and intensity
of droughts and floods. All of those things are connected to climate.
GROSS: So you see more drought and more flooding?
Mr. GLEICK: Yes, ironically. Climate change could have, I guess, caused a
better world. It could've made the drier places become wetter and the wetter
places become a little bit drier and cold places warmer, but, unfortunately,
the more we learn about climate change and the more we learn about what the
impacts of climate change are going to be, the more bad news we get. It seems
as though the drier places are going to get drier, just because of the way the
world's climate system delivers water. It doesn't deliver water particularly
well to dry places. And as the climate changes, that may be worsened. And at
the same time, of course, we worry terribly about floods, a tremendous amount
of water in a short period of time. And it seems as though the climate cycle
is going to intensify. That is, we're going to get more rain where we already
get a lot of rain, and it may be condensed into a shorter period of time. So
we may, unfortunately, get both: more droughts and more floods. It's sort of
the worst of all possible worlds.
GROSS: Hey, thanks for the good news.
Now, one of your major points is that we have to stop thinking about water in
the way that we thought about it in the 20th century. The emphasis in the
20th century was on what?
Mr. GLEICK: Well, in the 20th century, we built--especially in the United
States, but this is true worldwide--we built a tremendous amount of physical
infrastructure. We built dams to capture water in the wet season so we could
use it in the dry season. We built reservoirs and aqueducts so that we could
move water from where we get it to where we want it, from wet places to dry
places. And that infrastructure, that hard path, as I've described it,
brought enormous advantages to us, enormous benefits to us. It was a
wonderful thing. We eliminated water-related diseases in this country, pretty
much. We used to suffer terribly in the United States from cholera and
dysentery and typhoid and all of those diseases that we associated with lack
of safe drinking water. And mostly those completely disappeared in the early
part of the 19th century and the later part of the 19th century when we built
But the opportunities to build new dams and new reservoirs is pretty much
gone. We've built on the good dam sites and, unfortunately, some of the bad
dam sites as well, and we're going to have to re-think the way we use the
existing resources we have. There may be places to build new infrastructure,
but I actually think the 21st century is going to be, in the United States
especially, a century of water management and smart use and re-thinking
allocations of water from one user to another and figuring out how to use the
infrastructure we built better.
GROSS: One of the more surprising things I learned in reading about you is
that, although we're having a water crisis in parts of the United States, we
actually use less water per person and less water in total than we did 25
years ago. I find that kind of shocking.
Mr. GLEICK: It's shocking, perhaps not just to you, but interestingly
enough, to many people who work in the water area. The fundamental assumption
that we train our engineers and we train our hydrologists and we train our
water managers to assume is that, as population grows and our economy grows,
the demand for water must inexorably also grow. And in the past, that's been
pretty much true. As our populations, our economy grew, the demand or
withdrawals of water grew as well exponentially, up until, interestingly
enough, around the mid-, late-1970s, early 1980s. And then those two curves
split apart. And today in the United States, we actually use less water for
everything--for drinking, for cleaning, for flushing our toilets, for
irrigation, for cooling our power plants--than we used 20 years ago. And per
person, we use a lot less water than we used 20 years ago. We broke that
And even today, most water planners don't know that, and they continue to
assume--and this is part of this 20th century mentality that I think has to
change. They continue to assume that a healthy economy and a growing
population means we have to tap more and more into our, frankly, limited water
GROSS: What accounts for the fact that we're using less water per person than
we used to?
Mr. GLEICK: In the 1980s, we had an energy crisis--actually, in the late
'70s. We had a series of energy crises, and we also had a series of
environmental crises. I don't know if you recall, but the Cuyahoga River
caught fire in the late 1960s, Lake Erie was dying, water pollution was
horrible in the United States because we had no controls whatsoever on the
kinds of things we'd put in our waste water, and we dumped them into our
rivers and streams without really consideration for the environment. That was
a time when we passed our first national environmental laws. We passed the
Clean Water Act and we passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. And one piece of
that required industry to, for the first time, not dump untreated waste water
into our rivers and streams. And it turns out that one of the best ways to
cut down on waste water is to simply use less water in the first place.
Rather than produce a lot of waste water and treat it, which is very
expensive, if you can figure out how to produce less waste water, then you
save money and you meet these federal standards that are very important to us.
That was the first reason that industry started to look at ways to save water,
to use water more effectively. And let me give you, actually, a good example.
In the 1930s in the US, it took 200 tons of water to make a ton of steel. By
the 1980s, the steel industry had gotten that down to about 20 tons of water
to make a ton of steel, partly because they were trying to figure out how to
meet these waste water rules. Today the most efficient steel plants in the
world use only three or four tons of water to make a ton of steel. That's a
98, 99 percent reduction in the water requirement to make steel, and that's
part of what's going on in this trend toward water use efficiency. We're
getting smarter at doing what we want to do and figuring out how to do it with
GROSS: Do you feel like individuals are getting smarter, too, in using water
in their homes and offices?
Mr. GLEICK: I do. If you think about how we use water in our homes, it
turns out the largest single user of water in our homes is our toilets, and
before 1994, almost all the toilets sold in the United States used six gallons
every time we flushed them. And more than a decade ago, in 1994, the federal
government changed the standard to 1.6 gallons per flush. And that's a 75
percent reduction just in the amount of water to flush toilets.
But we've also improved our showerheads. Our front-loading washing machines
are much more water efficient than they used to be, than the old top-loading
washing machines. Basically, all of the forms of appliances that use water
are more efficient today than they used to be. And heaven knows there's still
plenty of horrible, inefficient toilets and washing machines and showerheads
out there. And that's actually a good thing in that it offers us some
opportunities to improve our efficiency even more. But we're becoming more
efficient. We're doing what we want with less water.
GROSS: If we've cut back on water per person, why are we experiencing a
shortage of water? Why is it more of a problem than it was...
Mr. GLEICK: Well there...
GROSS: ...say 25 years ago?
Mr. GLEICK: There are a couple of reasons for that. One is, nature gives us
water in different times and different places in different amounts, and the
Southeastern United States is in a very severe drought right now, as is the
Southwestern United States. So there are times when nature just doesn't give
us very much. So I would say our concerns about water scarcity are a
combination of natural variability, a combination of the fact that climate
change is increasingly putting pressure on our water in water-scarce areas,
and on the fact that our populations have grown in places where water is very
short. And so the little bit of slack that we might have had in dry areas,
like the Southwest, is gone. We've overallocated the rivers that are there.
We've given away more water than nature is going, in the long run, to reliably
provide for us.
GROSS: Now, a lot of people are drinking bottled water. There's the big
gallon jugs, and then there's the little bottles that people walk around
drinking. You don't really like the idea of bottled water. What's the
problem with it?
Mr. GLEICK: Well, I don't really like the idea of bottled water. I love the
idea that, in the United States, we can get high quality potable water from
our taps for incredibly low cost. That fact is the reason why we don't have
water-related diseases in the United States, which are so rampant still in
much of the rest of the world. We invested, 100 years ago, in our municipal
water systems. And we invested in high quality tap water. And I worry about
bottled water and the perception that our tap water isn't good, a perception
that is unfortunately often encouraged by advertising for bottled water. I
worry about the energy cost of bottling water. I worry about the plastics
involved in bottling water.
I understand completely that bottled water is very convenient. There are
times when I will admit to buying bottled water when I have no other choice,
something my friends are probably going to be horrified to hear. But it's a
luxury, and it's a luxury we don't really need for the most part. I'm not
saying we shouldn't have bottled water, but I really do believe people ought
to understand what, first of all, high quality tap water's available to them,
and second of all, what the true costs of bottled water are.
GROSS: Well, let's talk about those true costs. Am I right in saying it
takes three liters of water to produce one liter of bottled water?
Mr. GLEICK: Well, interestingly, it takes three liters of water to produce
the plastic bottle that holds a liter of bottled water.
GROSS: Oh, I see.
Mr. GLEICK: Bottled water, of course, mostly comes in plastic in the United
States, PT plastic, which is recyclable, although rarely recycled. And it
takes a lot of energy, and it takes a lot of water to make the plastic itself.
So probably, if you include the liter of water that's in the bottle, it
probably takes three to four liters of water to make a liter of bottled water.
GROSS: How much oil does it take?
Mr. GLEICK: Well, we actually estimated this. Not including the energy to
cool the bottle in the store or to move the bottle from the bottling plant to
where it's sold, just the energy involved in making the plastic and in
actually bottling the water itself, we estimated was the equivalent of about
17 million barrels of oil a year in the United States for the eight billion
gallons of bottled water that we drink every year.
GROSS: You've pointed out that we don't need potable water to flush toilets
or to water lawns. So what kind of alternatives do you see? How would we be
able to use nondrinkable water for things like watering lawns or flushing
Mr. GLEICK: Yeah, that's a great point and an important idea. Again, in the
20th century we built this water system and it brings incredibly high quality
potable water to our homes, and we use it to drink and to flush our toilets
and to water our lawns. It's a crazy use of a wonderful resource. And so one
of the things that people are thinking about in the coming years is ways of
using nonpotable water for nonpotable purposes.
In new homes, for example, increasingly we're seeing homes that are what are
called dual-plumbed. They have two sets of pipes. One brings high quality
potable water to our faucets, and the other brings fairly high quality but not
necessarily potable water, sometimes treated waste water, to flush our toilets
and to use on our lawns, where we don't need potable water. It's expensive to
do in homes that are already plumbed, but it's not as expensive to do in new
developments where we have access to two different sources of water.
We're going to see more and more of that. We're going to see more and more
use of treated waste water on golf courses, for industrial uses that don't
require potable drinking water. I think figuring out how to match the quality
of the water that we have with the quality of water and the different uses
that we need is part of this new thinking for the 21st century.
GROSS: What do you think about desalinization, taking seawater, using a
process that gets the salt out of it so it can be drinkable and used for other
Mr. GLEICK: It's ironic that we live on a planet that seems to be covered in
water to be talking about water problems. And 98 percent of the water on the
planet is salt water. It's the salt water in the oceans. And for centuries,
we've looked at that water and we've thought, `If only we could figure out how
to make that salt water fresh, then our problems would be solved.' And the
truth is, we know how to make that salt water fresh water. It's called
desalination or desalinization or de-salting. There are many technologies
that've been used for decades now to make fresh water out of salt water.
But the challenge is still that it's very, very expensive. It takes a lot of
energy to strip salt ions out of salt water, and the energy costs alone make
the price of desalinated water way beyond anything farmers would be able to
afford, for example. So I think that we're going to see more and more
desalination. I think we're already seeing it expanding fairly rapidly in
places that don't have any alternative and have a lot of energy, like the
Persian Gulf, for example. But in the United States, we still have less
costly alternatives. It's less costly to use water that we already pay for
more efficiently, it's less costly to figure out how to use water more
effectively in agriculture and send some of that water to the cities.
We are seeing a little bit of desalination; there's a new plant in Florida, in
Tampa Bay. There are proposals for plants in California for very high-valued
municipal uses. So I do think we will see desalination in the United States,
but I think it will be a relatively small part of the solution for some time
GROSS: You've consulted to a lot of cities, and you did an analysis of Las
Vegas' water problem. Las Vegas is a desert town with a booming population
and a lot of water problems. I'm wondering, you know, you made your
recommendations and everything, but I'm wondering if you think that places
like Las Vegas should exist in the first place, if you think there should be
booming cities in places that are hard to sustain in terms of water because
they're in a desert.
Mr. GLEICK: Well, I'm afraid...
GROSS: Not that they asked you, and it's a little too late, but...
Mr. GLEICK: Yeah. If they had asked me, I might have made a recommendation
in that regard, but it's too late. We have built our cities in the desert.
We've assumed that we could do whatever we want and we'll find the water.
We'll move the water there. This is the way Las Vegas was developed. It was
the way Los Angeles was developed, Phoenix, Tucson. We built cities in the
desert. I don't know why people love to live in really hot, dry places, but
they do. And in the past, the answer has been, `Build it, and we'll figure
out a way to get the water there.' And that worked to some degree in the 20th
century, but it's not going to work in the 21st century. There isn't any more
water. We're at the limits of our resources here, and we're not going to go
to Canada or Alaska. We're not going to desalinate seawater infinitely and
move it to Las Vegas. It's too far and too expensive.
And so the idea that we can grow without thinking about the resources that're
available for that growth is an old idea, and it's not going to work any
longer. It's time that we integrated the concept of growth and concerns about
growth with decisions about water and, frankly, energy and all of the other
resources that we use. We can't grow infinitely without running up against
limits. And in places like Las Vegas, those limits are pretty apparent
GROSS: Well, Peter Gleick, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. GLEICK: Thank you for having me, Terry.
GROSS: Peter Gleick is the president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland and
edits the biennial report "The World's Water."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Tamara Jenkins, writer/director of "The Savages," on
making the film and the events it is semi-based on
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The new movie "The Savages" is about an experience a lot of people go through:
uprooting their own lives to take care of elderly, sick parents. My guest,
Tamara Jenkins, wrote and directed the film. She also made "Slums of Beverly
Hills." In "The Savages," Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman star as
Wendy and Jon Savage, siblings who have just found out their estranged father
has dementia and needs care. So Wendy leaves her cramped Greenwich Village
apartment, Jon leaves his home in Buffalo, New York, and they meet in Sun
City, Arizona, where their father has lived in a retirement community. He'd
been living with his girlfriend, who paid for their home, but she's just died
and left him nothing. Wendy and Jon take their father to a nursing home in
Buffalo and try to figure out how to care for a father who didn't do a very
good job taking care of them.
Let's hear a scene from the movie. Wendy thinks the Buffalo nursing home
they've put their father in is run down and depressing. At her insistence,
they take their father to a more upscale nursing home to apply for admission.
During the screening process, Wendy makes it seem as if her father is mentally
more with it than he really is. Right after that, Wendy and Jon are outside
(Soundbite of "The Savages")
Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) What'd you say to them?
Ms. LAURA LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) I said he was pretty good except he goes
in and out every once in a while.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) "In and out"? Wendy, the man's got dementia.
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) I--I--I know, but they only had beds for
people who are more independent. I thought if we could just get him in there.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) Now, why are you wasting our time on fantasies?
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) She said she would put him on one of the
waiting lists! I mean, she--Jesus! I'm just doing it for dad.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) Dad's not the one that has a problem with the
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) No, I'm just trying to improve his situation.
Is that a crime?
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) There's nothing wrong with dad's situation!
Dad's situation is fine. But he's never going to adjust to it if we keep
yanking him out of there. All right, and actually, this upward mobility
fixation of yours? It's counterproductive and, frankly, pretty selfish.
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) Selfish?
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) Yeah. Because it's not about dad. It's about
you. You and your guilt. That's what these places prey upon.
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) I....
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) I happen to think it's nicer here.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) Of course you do. Because you're the consumer
they want to target. You're the guilty demographic. The landscaping? The
neighborhoods of care? They're not for the residents; they're for the
relatives, people like you and me who don't want to admit to what's really
going on here.
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) Which is what, Jon?
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) People are dying, Wendy! Right inside that
beautiful building right now, it's a...(word censored by station)...horror
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Tamara Jenkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have
you on the show. Love the film.
Ms. TAMARA JENKINS: Oh, thank you.
GROSS: Now, your previous film, "Slums of Beverly Hills," was based on your
experiences growing up with a father who was a gambler and a drifter and tried
to find the cheapest place in the Beverly Hills zip code so that you could go
to a good public school. And I figure "The Savages" is based a little bit at
least on your father, too, because in our 1998 interview, when we were talking
about "Slums of Beverly Hills," in talking about your father, you described
memories that are so close to the movie. And I had to ask myself, like, back
in 1998 when these stories were in front of your mind and you were talking
about them, did you have any idea that they would be related to your next
Ms. JENKINS: What did I say?
GROSS: Oh, you talked about how...
Ms. JENKINS: Was I talk--uh-huh?
GROSS: You talked about your father had been living with a woman and
basically she was paying for everything.
Ms. JENKINS: Uh-huh.
GROSS: And then she got sick and she died and that your father had dementia
and you had to take him on a plane.
Ms. JENKINS: I can't even believe we talked about this.
Ms. JENKINS: That is so unnerving.
GROSS: And that you had to take him in a plane from the retirement community
to--he was living in a nursing home...
Ms. JENKINS: Yes. Well, it wasn't a retirement community. Yeah.
GROSS: From wherever he was living with her...
Ms. JENKINS: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. I mean, what I've been describing the movie
and--I've been differentiating from it being strictly autobiographical vs. it
being really personal, because if I said it was entirely autobiographical, I'd
end up like that guy James Frey, who, you know, wrote that book and, you know,
showed up on "Oprah" and he defined it as a memoir, and then he was--got in a
lot of trouble because he had freely fictionalized, apparently. So this movie
is, there's a lot of fiction, but, you know, the heart of the story is based
on my personal experience with actually two family members, my grandmother and
my father, who both were in nursing homes at the end of their life, and both
suffered from dementia. So in that aspect, there's a kind of personal,
autobiographical core. But I definitely take liberties as a, you know,
GROSS: You know, I was telling a friend about your movie "The Savages," and I
said something like, `Well, it's a movie about two adult children who are kind
of estranged from each other who get together to take care of the father
they're kind of estranged from, who now has dementia and has to be taken to a
nursing home.' And he said...
Ms. JENKINS: And they said, `I do not want to go see this.'
GROSS: No, wait, and I said, `And it's really funny.' And they looked at me,
they were so puzzled. And I thought, like, when you sat down and knew you
were making a comedy--and it's not like a slapstick comedy, but, I mean,
there's parts of it that are just like really funny--how do you figure out
where the humor is in such a really sad situation?
Ms. JENKINS: I mean, I guess a couple things. I think it's a sort of
sensibility that is kind of part of my DNA or the way that I see, and I don't
really separate--I mean, the world separates comedies from tragedies and, you
know, dramas from farces, but I actually think that if you are paying close
attention in life, that you'll see that they actually are operating in stereo
most of the time, if you kind of look underneath, you know, if you look under
the tablecloth or look through the curtains or, you know, if you're sort of
attentive, you can kind of hear under tragedy is a kind of human farce
GROSS: One of the scenes in the movie that I really love--and I think anybody
who's had like a parent really sick in the hospital will recognize this
moment. You walk into the hospital room and you don't know what to expect,
don't know what your parent is going to look like, and you walk in and you see
your parent lying there with the oxygen and the IV, the urine bag with the
fluids dripping into it, the TV is on but nobody's listening or watching, and
it's just this like horrible sinking feeling. And you just like visually
capture that so perfectly. Can you talk a little bit about like shooting in a
hospital and shooting that scene, and what you wanted to show?
Ms. JENKINS: Well, we actually, at the beginning of the film, spent a lot of
time in sort of abandoned hospitals that we obviously, you know, fixed up and
production designed to make them look like they were functioning. But we did
have a, you know, a lot of days, and we were clocking in many hours in
abandoned hospitals and nursing homes, or actually, I guess the nursing home
that we used was a tiny little hospital that we then set decorated and made
appear like a nursing home. So those are pretty bleak environments. They're
not very glamorous locations. But it certainly sort of set the tone for the
milieu of this movie.
And in terms of the alienate--I mean, all those details that you just
described, you know, the television sort of blaring into a room where the
person's not even awake, and that sort of alienation, is, you know, something
that I think anybody's who's ever spent a lot of time in a hospital, you know,
with a parent or themselves, probably recognizes those sort of details. But
they had sort of multiple layers of alienation. One is that they'd been sort
of estranged from this father. But even when they were with the father, there
was a kind of, you know, estrangement, an emotional neglect and an emotional
estrangement. And then on top of it there was this third layer of, you know,
this dementia that was setting in. So there's a lot of layers of
GROSS: My guest is Tamara Jenkins, the writer and director of the new film
"The Savages." Here's the scene we were just talking about. Wendy and Jon,
played by Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, are visiting their father
in the hospital for the first time. His hands are in restraints to prevent
them from pulling out his IV. The father is played by Philip Bosco.
(Soundbite of "The Savages")
(Soundbite of television)
Mr. PHILIP BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) Hey, how've you been?
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) Hi, Dad.
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) Hi, Dad. How are you?
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) How are you?
Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) They have me hog-tied for two days!
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) We got here as soon as we could. We came
straight from the airport. It's Jon and Wendy.
Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) I know who you are. The late ones. You're
late. You weren't here, and this is what they do! See?
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) Dad...
Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) You weren't here, I said! Nobody!
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) Jon, go get somebody.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) Dad, we weren't here because--because we live
on the East Coast, remember?
Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) Huh?
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) We haven't seen you in a long time, and we're
here to help you.
Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) Well, do something! You're the doctor!
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) I'm going to go get somebody.
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) He's not that kind of doctor, dad. He--he's a
Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) I thought my boy was a doctor.
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) Doctor of philosophy. PhD. Teaches college.
Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) Medicine?
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) No, drama. Teaches theater.
Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) Like Broadway?
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) No, like theater of social unrest, stuff like
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: One of the things the daughter has to do is fly with her father from
Sun City, where he'd been living in a retirement community...
Ms. JENKINS: Yes.
GROSS: ...to Buffalo, New York, where her brother teaches and, you know,
she's taking him to a nursing home in Buffalo.
Ms. JENKINS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Now, I know from our previous interview that you flew with your
Ms. JENKINS: Yeah.
GROSS: ...to assisted living or nursing home, I'm not sure which.
Ms. JENKINS: Right.
GROSS: But what was your experience like flying with him on the plane, and
how incapacitated was he at that point when you were flying with him? Like,
that's such a difficult thing to do, and I think it's something so many people
have faced, making a really difficult trip, yeah.
Ms. JENKINS: Yeah, and it's a sort of--and it's kind of almost this, you
know, invisible thing. Until you've had the experience, I don't think you
quite--and now anytime I'm on an airplane and I see--I feel like I see it all
the time now, like suddenly my, you know, eyes--I've woken up, and I see that
that's actually happening around me and, you know, sort of the difficulty of
travel with an elderly person, either being accompanied by a family member or
not, but that is definitely something that I had sort of ripped out of my own
And I think that I didn't quite, as, you know, Wendy doesn't quite, understand
the complexity of the task at hand. Besides the emotional impact of, you
know, what she's doing, I don't think she even realizes sort of the physical
burden of transporting someone who kind of can't take care of themselves. And
I think the sort of gravity of that becomes more and more clear.
GROSS: When your father had dementia, were there certain things that were
like essential, deep parts of his personality that became more pronounced,
even if they were different during his dementia period than they were before?
Ms. JENKINS: Yeah, it was a very--with both of my family members who
suffered from dementia, it almost felt like--sometimes it felt like an
amplification of them in this, you know, the volume sort of being turned up on
aspects of their personality that might've been slightly more buried. It was
very heightened, but it didn't feel unfamiliar, their behavior, but it was
sort of at this high pitch, I guess.
GROSS: And what was it for your father? Which qualities?
Ms. JENKINS: I think it was a kind of volatility that was always there that
just seemed louder and more--the swings of it were sort of really strong and
striking. But he was always sort of that sort of person, a kind of--he would
swing from moods, and suddenly it would happen quite quickly at sort of a loud
volume. And also that sort of interesting thing about someone with dementia
where they sort of retreat. They retreat and you feel like they're not
present, and then they will just wow you with some zinger. Like, you didn't
even know they were there. You didn't know that they were present, and then
some, almost like a punchline, comes flying through the night, and you can't
believe it. So my father was actually really funny, and sometimes out of the
blackness of dementia, he'd just say something and slay you.
GROSS: Now, you cast Philip Bosco to play the father, and he's really
terrific in the role, a very kind of crusty, sometimes bitter and sometimes
just like really, really sad. And I guess I'm curious what the audition was
like, whether you just kind of said, `You got the role.' Or whether there was
Ms. JENKINS: No, there was an audition, and I was very concerned about the
casting of the part, and it was very important to me that he wasn't
trivialized, that the character wasn't trivialized as a bastard with a twinkle
in his eye. I just didn't want that cute-ification that I think often occurs
with difficult old men.
Ms. JENKINS: Where there's some sentimental streak in which either the
author or the actor or a director or a combination of factors lead to some
cute factor that, you know, just to make him sympathetic, to make the medicine
go down. It just felt like that would be a disaster, and I wanted it to be
very honest and blunt. And so I was reading people, and my casting director,
Jeanne McCarthy, suggested Phil Bosco. And I was being a really dumb literal
director-person, and I was thinking, `Oh, Phil Bosco, he plays judges and, you
know, kind of well-heeled patriarches, and he does Shaw, and he's too fancy.'
Anyway, in walks Phil Bosco, and he sat down in our little room, very small
room where we were reading people, and he read with my casting director, and
it was the scene in the diner where the kids ask him if, you know, `Dad, you
know, what would happen if you were in a coma?' He says, `What the hell kind
of question is that?' `You know, the place, the Valley View, they need it for
their records.' `You know, what the hell kind of hotel is it?' `Dad, it's not
a hotel, it's a nursing home.'
So he was reading the scene, and when Jeanne, who was playing opposite him,
kind of, you know, reads the line, `Dad, you know, it's not a hotel, it's a
nursing home,' I think inside that pause, the way he was sort of absorbing
that information, was quite beautiful and stunning. And he wasn't, you know,
cloying for--he wasn't begging for sympathy, he was just blunt and tough and
just playing it so truthfully and so straight, I really was kind of nuts for
him. And I very unprofessionally leapt up and hugged him after his audition.
And he kind of straightened himself up and started heading towards the door,
and I think that he became very suspicious of, `What kind of movie is this?'
Directors don't usually leap up and hug people after readings. And he turned
around on his way out and--just to make sure that it wasn't some fly-by-night
operation--he said, `So Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, they're
attached to be in this, right?' I think he thought--and I said, `No, no, no,
really. Really, I swear. This is very professional.' But I think he was
suspicious, rightly so.
GROSS: I love that scene because, you know, as you say, he doesn't like play
it for pathos or sympathy or anything. By the end of the scene he's yelling
at the two kids that they're idiots, you know?
Ms. JENKINS: Yeah, exactly.
GROSS: It's a great scene. Why don't I play it?
(Soundbite of "The Savages")
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) Dad, we need to talk about a couple things.
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) But we--we--we don't want you to take it in
the wrong way.
Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) OK.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) Yeah, it's just, it's a couple of questions
that'll make everything easier in the long run.
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) OK?
Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) Mm.
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) OK. In the event--in the event that something
should happen, um...
Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) Mm-hmm?
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) How--how do you want us to, um...
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) Dad. Dad. What if you're in a coma?
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) Jon...
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) Would you--would you--would you want a
breathing machine to keep you alive?
Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) What kind of question's that?
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) Well, it's a question we should know in case.
Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) In case what?
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) In case something happens.
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) Nothing's going to happen right now. Nothing
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) Right, it's just procedure. It's something
they want for their records.
Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) Who?
Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) The people who run the place. The Valley
Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) Huh. What the hell kind of hotel is it?
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) Dad, it's not a hotel. It's a nursing home.
(Soundbite of silverware)
Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) Unplug me.
(Soundbite of sigh)
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) What?
Mr. BOSCO: (As Lenny Savage) Pull the plug!
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: And that's Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney and Philip Bosco in a
scene from the new film "The Savages," and Savage is the last name of the
family. And my guest, Tamara Jenkins, is the writer and director of the film.
She also made "Slums of Beverly Hills."
The children in your story, they're both writers. She's writing a
semi-autobiographical play, or, as she describes it, a subversive
semi-autobiographical play. He's writing a book about...(unintelligible).
And their father just isn't like a book kind of guy, and you realize that
there's probably a lot of things that they would never be able to really
share. And I guess I'm interested in hearing why you wanted to create that
kind of relationship onscreen, where the children's lives are so different
from the parents. They're so much, even if he wasn't suffering from dementia,
they wouldn't get about each other.
Ms. JENKINS: Yeah, I mean, I guess that has to do with what we were talking
about before in terms of the estrangement being, you know, extra doubled up.
And, I mean, I feel like it's something I've seen, you know, in many
relationships between parents and children, a kind of almost like
foreign-ness, like, `Who are you? What have I wrought?' And in my own
experience, you know, I have three brothers who are professors and I think
that, actually, in my family, you know, none of my parents were educated, and
no one went to college, let alone having, you know, gone out and gotten PhDs
and teaching at universities. So it was certainly something that I was
familiar with, that sort of estranged, you know, just feeling like, you know,
that you were from different planets to a certain extent. But I know that I'm
not alone in that. I mean, I think that even, you know, parents and children
that have more in common can often feel that their offspring or their parents,
that nobody knows where the other person came from.
GROSS: My guest is Tamara Jenkins. She wrote and directed the new film "The
Savages" about two adult siblings who put their elderly father in a nursing
If this isn't too personal, I'm wondering what your father's funeral was like.
Ms. JENKINS: In real life?
Ms. JENKINS: It was intimate. It was in Philadelphia, which is where I was
born and where he was born.
GROSS: And where he once had a strip club, right?
Ms. JENKINS: Where he once had a strip club, yes. You're so well
researched! But, yes, and so it was, you know, our family was there, and some
extended family was there, and it was quite intimate, and actually in this
beautiful little cemetery which now I can't remember the name of it, but it's
right in the middle of the city. And it was quite--I remember it being very
overcast, and it was like this idyllic little cemetery. It was quite lovely.
I wish I could remember the name of the cemetery. I know I have it at home.
But, you know, it was very moving.
GROSS: You know, in the scene in the diner that we played from "The Savages"?
Ms. JENKINS: Yes.
GROSS: The children ask their father--they can't figure out how to ask him,
exactly, but they finally get around to asking, like, `So do you want life
support and what happens after you die?' Did you know what your father's
wishes were for a funeral, if he wanted to be buried or cremated, you know,
like what kind of funeral he wanted.
Ms. JENKINS: We knew that he wanted to be buried, and he was also in World
War II, so, you know, there was a flag over the casket because he was a
sergeant in World War II, so there was a veterans element to the proceedings.
And it was a plot near other family members. So he knew where he was going.
GROSS: Was it...
Ms. JENKINS: He held onto that paperwork for a long time.
GROSS: Do you have children?
Ms. JENKINS: No.
GROSS: The reason why I ask is, knowing that you had a kind of challenged
relationship with your father, that you were estranged from a long time, and
that, you know, to judge from the movie, from both of your movies, he wasn't a
traditional parent, wasn't traditional in his parenting style. For some
people, that would make them really want to become a parent and feel like,
`I'm going to do it right.' You know?
Ms. JENKINS: Right.
GROSS: And others would say, like, you know, `Families are difficult; I think
I'll stay away from having one of my own.'
Ms. JENKINS: Right.
GROSS: And I guess I'm curious how it affected you in your choices.
Ms. JENKINS: I'm married, and we're actually pursuing a family. But we're
definitely on the late side of that. We'll be older parents. But, you know,
I do think that it can create a delay or, you know, a rejection. But in my
case, I certainly haven't rejected parenthood, and it's something that I'm
actively pursuing. But, you know, I didn't get married until I was 40, so I'm
sort of on the slow boat approach to maturation. But I'm planning on it.
GROSS: And your husband, I should mention, is Jim Taylor, who is a
screenwriting partner with Alexander Payne, and they worked together on "About
Schmidt" and "Sideways." Did you have like a film meeting? You know, like did
you meet through film?
Ms. JENKINS: We actually had a kind of a cute meet, as they say in the
old-time movie business about romantic comedies. But our cute meet was, I
went to NYU graduate film school, and when I was leaving NYU graduate film
school, Jim Taylor was entering, and he has said that the reason that he went
to NYU film school, or one of the reasons, was that they had shown my short
films--you know, they'll show peoples' past work as an example of the kind of
work that's coming out of the program. And so his story is that he fell in
love with my shorts first, and then we met. Then he liked me. But for some
reason--his name is Jim Taylor, so I never would remember his name. And he
said that he tried to introduce himself to me over the course of 10 years, and
every time he introduced himself to me that I would never remember who he was.
But obviously now I remember because we're married.
GROSS: When did he finally make an impression on you?
Ms. JENKINS: I guess it was like seven years ago or something? We re-met on
a subway car heading up--I was on my way to Lincoln Center to see a movie. It
was a Friday night, and I was going to see "Come and See" by Klimov, a very
bleak movie, a great, great film. And he was on the subway, and he was on--I
said, `Where are you going?' And he said that he was on his way to his shrink.
And I thought, `Oh my God, this guy's going to a shrink on a Friday night.
He's very interesting. He's perfect for me.' I was impressed.
GROSS: Well, congratulations on the movie. And I hope now that you're
married that your husband isn't spending more Friday nights at the shrink.
Ms. JENKINS: No, now we're in couples therapy, so it's all working out quite
GROSS: Thanks so much for talking with us.
Ms. JENKINS: Thank you.
GROSS: Tamara Jenkins wrote and directed the new film "The Savages." It opens
in select cities tomorrow.
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
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